The Prince George Native Friendship Centre (PGNFC) is seen as the gold standard for Friendship Centres across Canada. Now, executive director Barb Ward-Burkitt has just celebrated her golden anniversary in the Friendship Centre movement, making her an institution within an institution.
“Fifty years with the Friendship Centre movement is an amazing accomplishment,” said Adam Vickers, President of the PGNFC’s Board of Directors. “As a result, Barb’s influence will be felt for generations to come and she will be remembered as one of the great Indigenous leaders of reconciliation in Canada.”
Ward-Burkitt got her start with the Quesnel Friendship Centre (Tillicum Society), attending as a volunteer to help out her mother Martha Ward and auntie Joyce Horning who urged her to attend and get in closer touch with her Indigenous roots. A well-timed phone call from them drew her in, shortly after her first child was born.
“My mom and auntie were preparing the Remembrance Day (1972) luncheon and my mom called me asking me to come help them, they needed potatoes peeled and vegetables chopped,” said Ward-Burkitt. “I’d said to her I don’t have a babysitter for Lea (my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter), and she said we’ve got a whole room full of elders here, she will be fine, pack up her dolls and bring her on down. They actually sent a taxi to get us. I remember setting her up with her toys and snacks and watched over her like a hawk, but pretty soon realized those elders were more than happy to take care of her. That was the start of working in the Friendship Centre movement. I really felt I’d found my place.”
It wasn’t long before her motivation to help her own people and uplift the organization led to a position on the board of directors of the Quesnel Friendship Centre, but before long she had to step down when she got hired as an employee. Her next step had been taken within the movement.
A following geographic step was soon to come. For personal reasons, she was drawn to Prince George in the early 1990s but it also connected to professional reasons, since there was a Friendship Centre there as well. It is a demographic fact that 80 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous population lives in an urban setting, so Friendship Centres are a pivotal service point and a home away from home for Indigenous people. B.C.’s northern capital was home to thousands of Indigenous people from scores of Nations across the region and the country. It made the PGNFC a critical magnet for Indigenous folks who found themselves living on Lheidli T’enneh First Nation territory.
Barb was soon one of them. She got hired in 1992 to work for Project Refocus, an adult career preparation program at the PGNFC. She had applied for an advertised opening at the Centre but her application was spotted by the Education & Employment Department’s manager, Donagh MacArtain, who snapped her up for his team, instead because she had a background in education in Quesnel.
It became yet another perfect match between Ward-Burkitt and the Friendship Centre movement. She climbed steadily through positions at the PGNFC. In April 2004, when Dan George moved on from the executive director’s position, Ward-Burkitt was named as his replacement, and she has held the position ever since.
Ward-Burkitt is a member of the Fort McKay First Nation (Cree). She carries the Indigenous name Wahiyow Cawapata Scoo. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education (major in Administration & Leadership, minor in Curricular Development & Instruction).
As a volunteer, Ward-Burkitt has been the President of Prince George Nechako Aboriginal Employment & Training Association and of the Prince George Metis Housing Society; she has been a field mentor for Simon Fraser University faculty, and sat on the Board of Governors for UNBC; she chairs the Minister’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Women in BC; has been involved with The Vancouver Foundation, the Economic Club of Canada, the Indigenous Business & investment Council, and many other regional, provincial and national appointments; holds a certificate in First Nations Design & Technology from Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, a Provincial Instructor’s Diploma from the Vancouver Community College, and her Native Adult Instructor’s Diploma from the BC Ministry of Education, Skills and Training.
Barb Ward-Burkitt was named to the Order of British Columbia in 2010. The province’s Lieutenant Governor of the day, Steven Point, said, “As executive director of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre, the largest of 120 Friendship Centres in Canada, Mrs. Ward-Burkitt acts as a strong advocate for elders, children and families, ensuring services offered in hec community focus on a holistic approach in a culturally appropriate atmosphere.”
She is a national influencer, a cultural figurehead, a role model for women, and a proud, hard-working mom and grandmother. Her husband Jim joins her in their active family life raising five grandchildren, and he frequently joins her as a volunteer in her Friendship Centre pursuits.
“l have the fondest memories of the Friendship Centre movement, because it all started me on my path to healing and gaining my capacity and my confidence,” Ward-Burkitt said. “All kinds of things happened as a result of me being connected to the Friendship Centre. And the other thing that really appealed to me was being able to help people. I have that inherent desire to help people. I grew up not in a cultural way and connecting into the Friendship Centre was a way to figure out who I was as an Indigenous person. It covered all the bases, ticked all the boxes, if you will. I can formalize my language around that now, but at the time it was just a place where I felt safe and I needed to be, but I couldn’t speak as to why at the time. I just knew it was the place for me, and it opened the doors to what the possibilities could be for me.”
She strives to ensure the Friendship Centre in Prince George and those like it across Canada continue to do that for others. Through her dedication to the movement, she is able to exemplify the power of friendship.